Birmingham, bomb alerts and I had a train to catch

VIEW FROM THE PRESSBOX: A quarter of a century ago, working as a sports journalist at sports events in the British Isles often had unsettling undertones. ANTON RIPPON recalls the day his match reporting was interrupted by a bomb alert

Good as his word: Sun sports writer Frank Clough eats his own words at a Derby sports club dinner

It was a bleak afternoon as I made my way from New Street station to St Andrew’s on Saturday, December 7, 1985. It was an even bleaker one for supporters of Birmingham City, who were looking for their team’s first win since late September.

City’s previous eight games had brought seven consecutive First Division defeats and one draw. True, this day’s visitors, Watford, were looking for their first win for eight weeks, yet still there was little room for Birmingham fans to suppose that recovery was just around the corner.

I was covering the game for the Sunday Telegraph and had my eye on one objective: to get back home to Derby in time to attend my wife’s works’ Christmas meal that evening. If nothing went wrong, it would be easily achievable.

The first person I saw in the St Andrew’s press room was The Sun’s Frank Clough. Thirteen years earlier, after covering a Derby County defeat at Old Trafford, Frank had declared that if the Rams won the Football League championship that season, he’d eat his match report on toast.

Well, Brian Clough’s team did lift the title and so I invited Frank to fulfil his promise at my own amateur club’s annual dinner. He turned up with the report printed on rice paper, asked for a slice of toast and jam, and duly kept his word.

We joked about that and then settled down on a miserably cold afternoon to cover the game, in which Watford made all the running before Birmingham took the lead in the final minute of the first half, when Andy Kennedy was tripped and Billy Wright (the other one) drove home the penalty.

Birmingham’s joy was short-lived. Four minutes into the second half some slipshod defending left Luther Blissett with yards of space to turn and volley home an equalising goal.

Thereafter, this hitherto unremarkable game ebbed and flowed before, in the 62nd minute, something astonishing happened: a police officer ran on to the pitch. The officer ignored the play going on around him and caught up with referee Neil Ashley. Next minute, the match official was rounding up the players and shepherding them off the field and out of the ground.

In the stands and on the terraces, police and stewards were doing the same with 7,000 bewildered spectators. Public address announcements appealed for calm, but spectators had no clue about what they might panic.

The inhabitants of the press box stayed put – until a red-faced bobby appeared and shouted: “That means you lot as well!” So we, too, spilled into the street.

Eventually word filtered through that the club had received a credible IRA bomb threat. Several similar threats had been phoned to First Division clubs that day and the rest had all carried on. But Birmingham still vividly remembered the IRA bomb that had killed 21 people and injured 182 others at the city’s Mulberry Bush pub in November 1974.

For an hour, spectators and journalists milled around outside as police checked the now empty stadium. I was wondering how I’d make Mrs R’s Christmas meal, but Frank Clough had his own dilemma: the bar at St Andrew’s was normally shut 45 minutes after the end of a match. If the game restarted, Frank wondered, would they take that into account?

Eventually, satisfied that there was no explosive device in the ground, the police allowed fans to be readmitted and the game to be restarted. I still find it remarkable that the task of searching an entire football stadium was completed in such a relatively short time.

Birmingham City’s concentration was affected most. Eight minutes after the resumption of play, Watford went ahead through Worrell Sterling.

That was how it finished – 2-1 to Watford who began a run of good results that would take them to mid-table safety. In contrast, Birmingham won only three more matches that season and were relegated.

At the final whistle, I phoned through my report to a copytaker who complained that I was way past my allotted call time, and then had to run (well, I was still a few days short of my 41st birthday) all the way back to the railway station.

I made the meal by the skin of my teeth and couldn’t even begin to explain the trouble to which I’d been put.

And I never did find out if Frank got his post-match drink.

JOIN THE SJA and benefit from a recognised press card, priority entry to key events and significant discounts and members offers on a range of activities